Unlearning Academic Writing

In this recent blog post, “Blogging is the New Persuasive Essay,” Shelly Wright argues that learning how to write for blogs is just as important (if not more so) as learning to write the ever-present 5-paragraph persuasive essay. I was cheering as I read this post!


In the last few years, I have spent quite a bit of time “unteaching” academic writing. My previous job was training people to maintain websites. Much of the coaching was about how to write for the web. The staff I work with are all college-educated, very well versed in that 5-paragraph persuasive essay. But guess what? That doesn’t work online, as Wright suggests.

Academic writing is the antithesis of good online writing. As Wright says, good blog – or web – writing has short, succinct paragraphs. Quotes and references can be just links. It’s important to not be long-winded. I’m famous around work for the saying: “Write it. Cut it in half. Cut it in half again.” (I cannot take credit for this saying. Credit goes to Ginny Reddish.) You need to think about how you write link text — it is NOT ok to write “click here.”


Digital communication gives us many more tools with which to express our meaning, including images. It is important to include images to convey meaning or to add context to online communications. (I fully admit my blog is not a good example of this. I am a text-based learner, and am trying very hard to add visuals!)

This addition of visual communication opens up the world to many more learning styles. A student who may not be good at stringing words together may be brilliant at conveying meaning by putting visuals together, making a movie, or through music. Expressing meaning through these other modalities is no less complex – I would argue it involves far more higher level thinking skills than just writing a 5-paragraph essay. A documentary requires a script, visuals, and music. The same process has to happen: picking a point, forming a thesis, and supporting your thesis with evidence.


So why limit students to the 5-paragraph essay? I would like to hear a rationale for limiting a student’s means of expression to text when all these other tools are available. The excuse of “we’re preparing them for college” doesn’t hold water anymore (I’ve heard this excuse with my own kids.

It’s the opposite. We owe it to these kids to teach them to express themselves in many modalities. Yes, they should write 5-paragraph essays. They should also be assigned visual ‘persuasive essays,’ such as documentaries, photo essays, exhibits, speeches, etc.

As an employer/employee, I can’t say I’ve written many 5-paragraph essays in the last 25 years. Have I had to “persuade” someone about something? Of course. Have I had to support a point in a meeting or presentation? Of course. The skills of a 5-paragraph essay are essential – but so is learning to present it in 21st century communication styles.

ISTE, Of Course.

The flight home from San Diego and the ISTE conference allows for time for reflection (and sleep!) The conference was, as always, an overwhelming experience full of inspiration, information and new connections.

The view from the San Diego Convention Center

Passion and Creativity: Big ideas for the conference, for me, were passion and creativity. Educators wanting students to find their passion, as passion fuels learning. Both keynotes discussed passion, and it came up in a number of sessions. Sir Ken Robinson reflected on how standardized tests create linear, one-size-fits-all schooling that stifles creativity and passion. Students aren’t all the same size. Check out the keynotes by Sir Ken Robinson (be sure to zip ahead to the keynote part)  and Yong Zhao (short clip and full keynote.).

Quote from one person watching Dr. Yong Zhao: “The focus on standardized testing is usually at the detriment of innovation, creativity and entrepeneurship.”

I know for my kids, passion is truly the motivator for learning. With passion flamed by the right content, an awesome teacher, or some personal motivation, learning can bloom. When passion is not fostered, learning is a chore and not done well.

Taking a Stand: I was inspired to take a stand by Sir Ken Robinson’s talk, as well as Adam Bellow’s Ignite bit. I can’t help bringing my personal life to this conference –  I am “just” a parent wanting my kids’ schools to move to incorporate technology. I’m often dismissed and not taken seriously. It gets discouraging. This conference has inspired me to stand up again. I’ve already drafted a letter to the superintendant, which I’ll post here once it’s done. I’ll also post the response. That could be interesting.

In addition, I was inspired by the number of “technology coaches” I saw and talked with. It seems that this is an increasing field, where experienced teachers/tech directors are going out and consulting with other schools. I’ve decided that I’m no longer just the parent bugging them, but a technology coach and advisor. How can I approach things differently? I’m going to offer my services to one school (working with a teacher) as a tech integration specialist for a few hours a week.

Education Reform: I sometimes wonder if ISTE is about technology or about education reform. Maybe it should be ISRE – international society for the reform of education. There are very few sessions that don’t have some element doing things differently, of changing that “factory model” of education. While not all sessions are as drastic as Sir Ken Robinson’s keynote or Will Richardson’s session on change, even the basic “list 100 apps” sessions talk about how to do education differently.

I find this encouraging and hopeful. The change is all about doing our best for students.

The view from our condo. Made for a great Sunday afternoon hang out to watch the Padres game!

Connections: Since I’m not a teacher, but a content provider, sometimes I don’t have a “group” at ISTE. Yet, this year I told myself I was going to work much harder at making connections, and I did. I made a number of professional connections that could have real impact on the projects we have planned at work. It could lead to some powerful partnerships that could help us achieve our goals to deliver the best digital content, in ways that teachers and students really can use.
In addition, I found I had a much easier time just talking to people, whether it was someone waiting in line to get into a session, sitting at a table quickly eating lunch, or sitting by me in the Blogger Cafe. These quick conversations were always interesting and truly did help me feel connected (although I still wish I had a better answer for the inevitable “where do you teach” question.)

The really fun connections? I saw all these people I “know” from blogging. Of course, I don’t really know any of them and they don’t know me at all. I just read all the stuff they post. I was beside myself to be sitting by a table with Audrey Watters, Jerry Blumgarten, George Couros, Patrick Larkin and more. I was far too shy to say anything – why would they talk to me? Then I attended a session with Will Richardson…. And I even talked to him! Later that night, I saw Jeff Bradbury and Steve Anderson at a party. I had had a glass of wine, so was a little more confident. I just went up and introduced myself. Today, the ultimate: I walked right by Chris Lehmann as I was leaving. I just went up to him and introduced myself. We had a very nice conversation, and he even invited me to come talk more up in the Blogger Café. I was beside myself! How exciting! Too bad I was on my way out. Dang. It just MADE MY CONFERENCE!

Parents: I’ve been thinking…. One voice that is absent from this whole conversation – not just at ISTE – is parents. Students are a small voice – they should have a much bigger voice, and I know they do at smaller conferences. But parents need some voice in this as well. I appreciate hearing from the administrators about how they bring parents on board when the school is driving the change. It is immensely helpful to hear about parent tech nights, different modes of communication, and happily, the lack of parent resistance to the changes. When I do speak to my kids’ schools, it helps to have these ideas from these great leaders. Yet, parents are not part of the conversation at ISTE. Should they be? I’m not really sure, but it’s worth asking.

Thanks ISTE for another overwhelming and thought-provoking few days. This year, I leave confirmed that professionally, we’re on the right track with our digital content projects, even though I have a lot of work cut out for me in moving others in the organization along the path. Personally, I am even more frustrated by the situations my kids face at their schools. I have been inspired and will pick up my advocacy at these schools. Wish me luck.


This year, my son is taking an Astronomy class at a three-week summer program. It’s intense – they are doing some tough stuff during these three weeks. My son loves it.

On the first day, he was so excited to tell me that the teacher told them to USE their camera on their cell phones/iPods!! The teacher told them to take pictures of the activities they do in class. Wow. He gets it!!

The kids are going to use the pictures to create a slide show for the Open House night  on the second-to-last day of camp. I think this is brilliant. Instead of the teacher taking all the pictures, let the kids! That way you see the class through their eyes – not the teachers. The kids have a task, a responsibility.

The teacher also encouraged the kids to show their parents the pictures. So my son does. It’s been a great way to get past the “What did you do today. Nothing.” conversation. Instead, I ask him to show me the pictures he took that day. We’ve had some great conversations, he’s talked a ton more than he would otherwise, and I’ve learned something. It would have been much harder to explain some of what they did without the pictures.

So, besides learning incredible stuff about astronomy, the kids are also learning digital citizenship, and 21st century skills such as communication and collaboration. In addition, they are using visual media to communicate – and since over 60% of this generation are visual learners, this fits right in.

So, thank you, Mr. Bullard. You get it.


A Program that Works

My son is in a summer program that has the kids taking one class for three weeks. It’s a challenging academic program that pushes the kids to look really deeply at one area. They’re able to really explore the topic through a variety of activities – mostly through project-based, hands-on experiences. No testing, no rote memorization, no routine classroom stuff. Teachers have planned activities and they have lectures, but kids are able to pursue their own interests and work quickly on project and through content.

My kids have done this program for six years, and each time they come away asking why regular school can’t be more like this program. I often wonder the same question. They learn so much during this program, they LOVE going every day. It’s challenging – there’s no slacking during these three weeks. Yet, the kids want more and more.

Why can’t regular school be like this?

Holding the Adults Responsible

The news has been covering a recent story about a few middle school students who took cell phone pictures of girls in the locker room, then shared the pictures. The students (ages 13-14) were charged with criminal activity.

Gail Rosenblum had an insightful column in the StarTribune about using this as a time to instruct, not to punish. I agree with her 100%, and would even go further than that. While the students need to be held responsible for their behavior (they are getting many hours of community service – an appropriate response), I think adults in their lives should be held responsible as well.

Rosenblun states, “As obvious as it may seem, we need to keep explaining the rules…” She’s exactly right. Kids need to be taught appropriate usage and behavior with these tools, just like they need to be taught appropriate use and behavior in riding a bike or eating dinner. They need to know these skills in addition to geometry, history, etc.

Parents need to participate in this. Parents are often the worst offenders. Rosenblum acknowledges that adults need to follow the good behavior rules, too.  A couple of weeks ago, we attended a recital at my son’s school There was a man, we assume the dad of one of the performers, sitting way in the back, in the group of 8th grade students. Was he interacting with them? Nope – he was on his phone the entire concert, except the few minutes the group that his child was performing with was on. What kind of model was this? Seeing a parent do this basically gave this whole group of 8th graders permission to pull out their phones and text, surf, etc., during the concert. That is not ok.

Teachers and administrators need to participate as well. We know this. It needs to happen. This is why saying NO PHONES or devices is not a good policy. I guarantee you the kids are using them anyway.

This school happens to have a pretty solid cell phone use policy – phones are allowed for academic reasons. I don’t have any idea what the school does to teach digital responsibility, and these things can happen no matter what you teach. But it is a wake up call to others that schools and parents MUST be teaching these expectations to students.


A recent post by Joe Bower, “Giving Students a Zero Teachers Them a Lesson” resonates.

Zeroes motivate kids — they motivate them to quit.

What a great quote. And concept.

We recently saw a perfect example of this. A few weeks ago, my daughter was caught “cheating” on a worksheet (a worksheet… in 9th grade. in science. PLEASE!)

I had seen the girls working together on said worksheet the night before. I expect an answer was getting copied from one page to another. But was that cheating? Or collaboaration?

Anyway, the teacher called my daughter and her friend out in front of the whole class. Told them they had a zero on the assignment and no possibility of any more extra credit. He didn’t give them a chance to explain. He didn’t listen.

This “zero” did exactly what Joe Bower said. My daughter had never been in trouble before, and this zero caused to her want to quit. Her grade in that class plummeted, her motivation was gone. Read the rest of Bower’s blog. He teaches at a children’s psychiatric assessment unit.  It breaks your heart to read about his experiences with kids who “…have been fed a steady diet of zeros for years.”

Fortunately, my daughter was mad, and didn’t let it get her too down – although I doubt she’ll ever enjoy science much after this humiliating experience. We saw, for a moment, exactly what Bower refers to. I could easily see how getting zero after zero becomes a vicious circle. My daughter had enough non-zeros (and I don’t mean grades) to be strong and survive. She moved on. Sadly, not all kids can.